The University of Wisconsin System projects 2,276 students will be enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha and the University of Wisconsin-Washington County in the fall of 2018, a decrease of more than 25 percent over the past decade.
But technically, those students won’t actually be enrolled at either of the institutions that have been part of the 13-school University of Wisconsin Colleges system. Instead, they’ll be considered students at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee starting July 1 as part of a restructuring plan that converts colleges into branches of nearby four-year UW schools.
“That being said, all of the functions that go on at those campuses will continue to go on without a hitch,” said Ron Perez, interim dean of the Zilber School of Public Health at UWM and chair of its regional campus transition committee coordinating team.
The restructuring plan was first announced by UW System president Ray Cross in the fall. Cross pointed to demographic challenges, budgetary constraints and the need for alignment of research and practice in calling for the restructuring.
The goals of Cross’ plan are: to expand access to higher education by offering more courses at two-year campuses; to keep the two-year campuses as affordable options by maintaining current tuition levels for existing courses; to reduce barriers to transferring credits; to further regional administrative operations; and to take advantage of shared talent at the UW System’s institutions.
The UW System Board of Regents gave the go-ahead in November for restructuring planning to begin and since then, teams at the system level and at individual campuses have been racing to figure out how to seamlessly incorporate the UW Colleges budget and employees into the seven four-year schools taking on new branches.
At UWM, the task is being led by Perez and Paula Rhyner, with help from more than 100 committee members and just as many ad hoc participants who chime in on specific issues. The Waukesha and Washington County campuses bring with them a combined $15 million budget and more than 100 full-time equivalent employees.
“As you can imagine, it’s a big project,” Perez said.
Early on in the process, Perez and Rhyner, the committee’s vice chair and a UWM professor emerita, embarked on a listening tour to identify potential issues in the restructuring. What emerged is a set of complex topics including academic affairs, governance, accreditation, enrollment, student affairs, finance and communications. Functional teams have since been established to identify issues and opportunities in each area.
Potential issues range from different policies for faculty, staff and students at each campus; to merging athletic programs; to addressing differences in student service fees.
The teams will make recommendations to Perez’s committee, which will eventually forward the ideas on to UWM chancellor Mark Mone for additional review and discussion.
“In the end, the decisions will be his,” Rhyner said.
Given the size and complexity of the undertaking, the UW System and regional teams are focusing on a two-phase approach. The goal is to have everything in place by July 1 to make the change official, even if there is not much that changes practically. Then, over the next year, the regional campuses will work to integrate the two-year campuses into the receiving schools.
One area of particular concern is student enrollment. While all three campuses use similar systems, there are enough differences that it won’t be as simple as merely transferring the data to UWM. Beyond admissions, there’s also financial aid, student internships and course enrollment.
“We do all those things in Milwaukee, Waukesha (and) Washington County. The thing is we do them slightly different,” Perez said.
While the goals of the restructuring include expanded access and continued affordability, the plan has also generated fears that it will bring an end to what has already been an affordable option for students to complete general education courses.
The UW Colleges have seen declining enrollment, with fall 2017 headcount down more than 25 percent over the past decade. Combined, UW-Waukesha and UW-Washington County were in better shape in 2017, down about 19 percent, but still well below the almost 1 percent growth at the UW System’s four-year schools. The trends are expected to continue, as the number of Wisconsin high school graduates is projected to fall another 6.5 percent by 2032, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
“Change is hard and change can be scary, but I think people are beginning to realize there’s some upside,” Perez said. “It’s in no one’s interest that enrollment goes down in Waukesha and Washington County.”
He said UWM will be able to bring programs and resources to the suburban campuses that were previously out of reach, and he’s also been impressed with the two-year schools’ capabilities in online and distance education.
“I think it will be a mutually beneficial relationship,” Perez said.